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    In every family, someone ends up with “the stuff.” It is the goal of The Family Curator to inspire, enlighten, and encourage other family curators in their efforts to preserve and share their own family treasures.

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    « Join Up and Serve (Help Index the 1940 US Census) | Main | Lessons from the Archive: When Silverfish Come to Visit »
    Sunday
    Feb262012

    Before the Archive: Trash or Treasure

    Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time with the bits and pieces of other people’s lives. There’s no Archive, yet, of my late aunt’s family papers. Mostly, I’ve been carefully sifting boxes papers, files, books, and odd little things. Before deciding what to save and what to get rid of, I have to look at everything.

    I recently worked on a webinar with Allison Stacy Dolan at Family Tree Magazine featuring the 24 boxes of family papers she inherited from her grandmother. Allison’s challenge was similar to mine, but her grandmother had already completed Stage One Triage with the material when she decided what she deemed “family history” and worth passing on to Allison. The boxes appeared to contain genealogy research, photos, letters, and memorabilia, exclusively. Allison’s grandmother was, after all, downsizing her home, and probably kept many other items for her personal use.

    In contrast, most people who inherit an estate and have an interest in family history find that they have to create a Family Archive from the treasures they find mixed in with the bits and pieces of everyday life.

    My aunt had given me only one small box of photographs belonging to my grandfather. We looked at them briefly sitting in the car one day last summer; she didn’t have the time or energy to spend more time with them. A few months later, she passed away and my sister and I found ourselves left with a house filled with the paper trail of our aunt’s life.

    I’m finding that this situation might be the fairly common. It’s the side-story to the old “death and taxes” joke. When someone passes away, someone has to pay the taxes and tidy up the things left behind.

    My aunt lived most of her life in Orange County, California, about 30 miles from my home in Pasadena. In Southern California, we measure distance by drive-time, not miles, and the drive can take anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes depending on traffic. To cut down on the time I’d need to spend at my aunt’s home as we cleared it out for sale, I decided to box up anything personal and bring it home to go through later.

    My sister is the get rid of it type, so she was happy to send it off with me. I’m the saver type and came home with more than just paper in the boxes. I have crates of vintage dishes, sorta cool office supplies, 50’s linens, and lots and lots of paper. This is making for some interesting discoveries.

    However. . . I’m supposed to be looking for family history materials, not getting nostalgic about teacher valentines, old yearbooks, or Bible bookmarks.

    Focus. . . I need to print this word in big letters and hang it over the pile of stuff.

    So here I am with all this stuff. Some days I feel like I’m living in the archives. We have an office in our basement that is filled with all the boxes and stacks of stuff. It’s depressing. I am determined to work my way through the mountain, and as the weather begins to warm up here in Southern California I am spending more time sorting and organizing. This isn’t the first time I’ve faced this task, unfortunately, and I’ve learned something each time I work with a new estate, locating and saving things for a Family Archive. I’m sure I’ll learn even more this time around. What about your archive? Did you inherit it as Family Archive, or did you inherit an estate filled with treasure (and trash)?

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    Reader Comments (9)

    I so wish I'd inherited boxes and boxes! Instead, everything fit into one box. I know the grass is always greener but I'm thinking, lucky you!

    February 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNancy

    You are so right, Nancy. It's truly a gift to inherit someone's "bits and pieces." Also a great responsibility to find and salvage the stories they hold. Sometimes I feel a like a keeper of more than stuff. Keeper of stories, for sure.

    I think our ancestors whose personal effect are pared down to the essentials tell a story about their values too. Maybe they didn't want to burden their descendants, or just didn't have time, leisure, or funds to acquire much. Lots to think about, that's for certain.

    February 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDenise Levenick

    I've only really inherited one family archive but if I hadn't done the work in the summer heat it would have gone in the skip. The "trivial" things are full of data eg address books and the photos have provided clues to some otherwise-lost research. If in doubt, photograph or scan before dumping. I wish some of the things that had gone on the fire after my 2xgreat grandparents died had been saved.

    February 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPauleen

    I inherited 3 boxes. Newspaper clippings (no date or heading), notes, cards, photos (no names or dates or locations), etc. I've organized some. Just sorting takes time but even the linens and glassware have a story. I know that, but I still need to do something with it all. I wish you great success.

    February 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

    Yes, Pauleen. Scan before dumping is a great tip. Surely better than losing information forever. I know what you mean, Karen, about the linens. We have boxes of those too. It's hard to keep them all; no one uses them or likes to maintain them anymore, but they are so beautiful.

    February 27, 2012 | Registered CommenterFamily Curator

    Mine is the estate complete with treasure and trash so I know what you mean about piles and piles of boxes and having to go through EVERYTHING. We like to say in our family every box has at least one item in it that has value - either sentimental, historic or monetary. We also take turns passing things off on one another since our interests are different. We have each other well trained by now.

    March 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle Goodrum

    Re: old linens


    Yes, yes, yes! People DO love old linens and there are plenty of antique dealers and textile collectors and makers of antique doll clothes out there. E-bay comes to mind as a selling place. But, again, locating a dealer, negotiating a sale, etc. is a distraction from sorting and saving the meaningful--to us--items.

    March 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnne

    I wish I had inherited boxes and boxes of my grandparents family story! Instead I got a large TV carton with the varied contents of drawers dumped into it by the children of my grandfather's 2nd wife. The drawers these things were in disappeared into their homes, the things I got were a tangled mess. It took me 2 years to go through these items, and I kept everything, 2 Bibles, Funeral guest books, memorial cards, cemetery plot deeds, school mementos, newspaper clippings, correspondence, photos, envelopes of photographic negatives of several formats were taken to a developer to have printed, linens, antique pin cushion, postcard collection of my grandmother's from her childhood. I learned that my aunt had run off to Pennsylvania and the Red Cross was enlisted to retrieve her because there was a receipt among the papers for what my grandparents gave for this service. Now there's got to be a story somewhere in there, eh? But they are all gone now and I'll never know. I learned that my grandparents mortgaged their farm several times over the decades. To me, every single thing in that box is a Treasure!

    March 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSharon

    Sharon, I think you re right "every single thing in that box is a treasure" when you get right down to it. You have inherited the best, it seems, and the stories are fabulous. Time to write about it?

    Anne, I hear you about the linens! I've contacted an estate sales company and have a date on the calendar. I want them to go to good homes.

    Michelle, thanks for the great image, all those smiling relatives passing around boxes. You are lucky!

    March 11, 2012 | Registered CommenterFamily Curator

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